Category Archives: Chemin du Puy

Speaking French—Or Not—on the Chemin du Puy


[The Road into Saugues]

The road into Saugues, near the beginning of the Chemin du Puy.

It’s possible to survive walking the Chemin de Saint-Jacques from Le Puy-en-Velay if you speak next to no French. I met two Austrian students who walked part of the route, and gleefully got by snorting like pigs to order pork in a restaurant, and miming their ailments in a pharmacy. I also walked for a day with a Korean woman who spoke no French apart from the tiny amount she’d picked up while walking. She made it all the way to Santiago.

That said, the Chemin du Puy is a lot easier—and more companionable—if you speak French.

Guidebooks

The Miam-Miam Dodo guidebook has the most comprehensive information on accommodation and places to eat and shop for food. It also has some very nice maps.

It’s completely in French, but it uses easily-understood symbols to portray lodgings and more, so if you know a very basic amount of French, you’ll probably be able to muddle through.

If you got your Miam-Miam Dodo a few months before your trip, you could even look up the important words (they tend to repeat) in an Internet translation program and write them down.

The only English guidebook that I know of is Alison Raju’s Way of Saint James—France. It’s been updated this year, and I can’t comment on the new edition, but the previous edition didn’t have nearly as comprehensive information on eating and sleeping as the Miam-Miam Dodo has. However, it did have historical information and very detailed descriptions of the trail.

Asking for Directions

The route is generally well waymarked, but I occasionally had to ask for directions to it—especially in the mornings—or ask directions to a gîte d’étape (a small hostel for walkers).

I could ask for the directions easily enough (“Pardon. Savez-vous ou est le gîte d’étape?“). Unfortunately, I couldn’t always understand the answer. In that case, I would walk in the direction the person I talked to pointed in for a while, and then ask someone else. It’s not the most efficient method of getting somewhere, but it worked, especially since the gîtes weren’t usually that far from the walking route.

Stores

You don’t actually have to speak French in stores (although a bonjour is friendly), since you can usually select your own items or point to what you want. Of course, if you can’t read the packaging in pharmacies you might have to resort to my Austrian friends’ methods and act out your problem.

The price will either come up in euros on the till, and if it’s a really small place with no till, the shopkeeper will probably write down the amount for you.

Eating Out

If you can’t read the menu and have no one to translate, I would think you could use the age-old travellers’ stand-by of pointing to what’s on someone else’s plate. You could also use my Austrian friends’ method of snorting like a pig, or acting out some other sort of animal.

Booking Accommodation in Advance

I find it’s harder to speak a foreign language on the telephone because there are no visual cues. Nonetheless, I managed to make reservations from payphones or gîte phones a number of times.

When I met other pilgrims with cell phones who were going to the same place as I was, they never minded booking a bed for me, too. Sometimes the hospitalier(e)s offered to phone, too. I would imagine you could ask people to phone by pointing at an entry in a guidebook and miming.

I’ve heard the people at tourist information offices are very helpful about booking rooms, as well, though I never thought to try it. I would think they’d be more likely to speak English than others, but I don’t actually know how much English they tend to speak.

Pilgrims, and Others You Meet Along the Way

When I walked the route (mainly in September), the majority of walkers were retirees from various parts of France. They didn’t speak much English, although the some did try a bit of their school English after I’d known them for a while. The second largest group was French Canadians. The younger ones especially often spoke nearly-fluent English.

Then there was the occasional pilgrim from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands or even Asia or beyond, who often—but not always, especially if they were older—spoke good English. I only occasionally met a native English-speaker, and only two of those (out of five that I can think of) were planning to walk the entire route.

It was definitely a relief every time I met people who spoke English, because communication was otherwise a lot of work, especially when I was exhausted from the walking. Meeting native English-speakers was particularly exciting, since that meant I didn’t have to slow down and focus on using simpler words. (Not that I minded doing that at all—after all, the people I was talking to were usually making even more of an effort to speak my language, and spoke it much better than I spoke theirs. It was just nice—and strangely surprising, since I wasn’t used to it any more—to find communication really easy on the six days or so I had a chance to speak with native English-speakers.)

Many nights in gîtes it was me and a bunch of French-as-a-first-language speakers. Some (definitely the minority) of them could speak quite fluent English. But I know I missed out on some really interesting dinner-table discussions because I couldn’t follow the French.

It would have been nice to be able to talk about more things with local people I met along the way, as well. Of course, this might have been tricky even if my French was better, since there are different regional dialects of French spoken in the different regions the Chemin passes through.

Learning As I Walked

I speak enough French to ask where things are and carry out other basic conversations. If the person I’m talking to makes an effort, I can discuss somewhat more involved topics. I didn’t have any problems communicating when I really had to, but it would have been nicer to be more fluent.

I did find that after two weeks or so, the French I did know was becoming second nature. My grammar and vocabulary weren’t wonderful, but I could speak what French I did know without thinking about every word. It was so engrained by the time I got to Spain that I said “Bonjour” to the woman in the tourist information booth at Roncesvalles, and then had to speak with her in French even though she probably spoke good English.

Have I Missed Anything?

I know this isn’t completely comprehensive. If I’ve missed something that you’d like to know about, or if you can contribute information, please leave a comment.

I had a wonderful time on the Chemin du Puy and wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but it would have been even better if I’d spoken better French.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:12 pm
, , ,
2 Comments

The Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés: Similarities and Differences


Along the Chemin du Puy

The Chemin du Puy, starting in Le Puy-en-Velay, France, is the most popular of the Camino de Santiago routes across France. It joins up with the Camino Francés, the most popular route in Spain, at Saint-Jean-Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees.

I walked the whole route from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela in 2008. I really enjoyed both routes, though in some ways they were quite different.

This isn’t intended as a judgment of either route. It’s just meant to give you an idea of the differences between the two so you can decide which to take, or, if you’ve already walked one, you can decide if the other is something you might like to do.

It’s all based on my experiences, and of course yours might be quite different.

The Cost

France was definitely more expensive than Spain. In France (remember this was in 2008), dorm accommodation (in gîtes d’étape) generally cost between 7 and 15 Euros. In Spain, the refugios were usually 3 to 7 Euros.

Dorm Accommodation

The gîtes in France might have been more expensive, but they were also generally nicer than the refugios in Spain. Dorm rooms were usually smaller in the gîtes, there were sometimes single beds instead of bunk beds, and the bunk beds were never shoved together so people had to sleep right next to strangers, as in some cases in Spain.

Also, the gîtes rarely had a time when walkers had to leave (and it was around 10:30 a.m. in the one I can think of that did), while many refugios expected pilgrims to be out by 8 a.m.

Eating and Supplies

[Santiago Cake]

A Delicious Galician Treat: Santiago Cake

In both places, many shops closed for siestas or long lunches. I am convinced there is no single time in Spain when every single shop is open, but I actually found France more difficult in terms of getting supplies. Some shops and bakeries were closed on Sundays, and others on Mondays, or even Thursdays. On the days they were open, they might open for a few hours in the morning, and then close until 5 in the evening. Sometimes they were open Sunday mornings, but closed in the afternoons.

I didn’t actually eat out in France, but I did sometimes get demi-pension at private gîtes, which included a bed in the dorm room, a four-course dinner and a breakfast (usually bread, butter and an assortment of jams and hot drinks). This usually cost 25 to 30 Euros and was always excellent.

In Spain, I sometimes had dinner at a bar (which is like a combination café/pub). The menu de peregrino (pilgrim’s menu) also usually included four courses, but the food wasn’t usually as good as that in France.

In both places, many of the gîtes/refugios had kitchens where walkers could prepare their own meals. In Galicia, however—though this might have changed—many of them didn’t have pots and pans.

Other Walkers/Pilgrims

On the Chemin du Puy, when I was there in September, the vast majority of the walkers were French retirees who were walking for about two weeks (many planned to do the entire route over the course of three years). Many of them saw themselves more as walkers than pilgrims, and only a small number planned eventually to walk to Santiago.

There were also a number of Canadians of all ages from Quebec, and the occasional German, Swiss, Belgian or Dutch walker, many of whom had walked from their own countries.

On the Camino Francés, more people saw themselves as pilgrims, and many were walking the entire route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela. The route was much more international, with pilgrims from all over Europe, Asia, and North America, and a few from other parts of the world.

Local Welcome

In general, I found locals quite friendly on both routes. They were always helpful when I had to ask for directions in my mangled French or Spanish, or bought supplies.

Along the Chemin du Puy, there were a number of yards with signs where people left out drinks—and in one case tomatoes—available to pilgrims by donation. Especially closer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, there were also a lot of pilgrim decorations in private yards to encourage us on.

My only bad experiences on the Camino Francés were in Castilla y León. Three times—once alone, and twice when I was walking with a female friend—I had men expose themselves to me. I never felt like I was in any danger, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant. My friend and I also had a guy call us bad names as we waited to cross the highway into León.

Language

On both routes, it was helpful to know some of the local language, since many of the locals don’t speak English.

On the Chemin du Puy, I found French was also necessary for talking with the majority of the other pilgrims. On the Camino Francés, on the other hand, a lot of the pilgrims spoke reasonable English or were travelling with someone who could translate.

The Routes

[The Camino in October]

Along the Camino Francés

Both routes were a mix of big cities and villages; hiking paths, country roads, and highways; forests, farms and urban centres.

The Le Puy route was a tougher walk. The first two-thirds or so had a lot of steep ascents and descents, since most of the route was high up, but the towns were generally in valleys. The views were spectacular. Around Moissac it got quite flat, but the views weren’t as incredible. At the right time of year, the vast fields of sunflowers would be pretty amazing, though. Closer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the Pyrenees foothills, the terrain got more difficult (though not nearly as hard as closer to Le Puy) and the views quite wonderful.

I could be wrong about this, but I suspect the Chemin du Puy had more parts where I had to walk right on a highway. I think the Camino Francés involved more highway walking overall, though—it’s just that much of it was on a special senda del peregrino, which was basically a paved sidewalk next to the highway.

The Camino Francés had some difficult ascents and descents that were worthy of the Chemin du Puy, but not nearly as many. There were a number of absolutely beautiful parts, particularly at the beginning and end of the route. The big cities were generally larger and more industrial than the big cities on the Chemin du Puy.

To compare the elevation profiles of the routes (which give you an overview of the ascents and descents), visit the Camino Planner.

Garbage and Graffiti

There was almost no garbage or graffiti along the Chemin du Puy, apart from the occasional toilet paper patch.

Garbage was—and I suspect still is—a real problem on the Camino Francés route. It also seemed that every region I walked through wanted to separate from Spain, and the vast amounts of graffiti on parts of the route reflected that.

Waymarking

[Yellow Arrows on the Camino Francés]

Yellow Arrows on the Camino Francés

The Chemin du Puy is waymarked as any other GR (long-distance route in France) with red and white marks on trees, fences, signs, and just about anywhere else. In some regions, there are signs giving the distance to nearby towns, or to Santiago. It’s marked so you can walk it in both directions. (Embarrassingly, this was actually a problem for me one day when I somehow got turned around and walked a few kilometres in the wrong direction.)

The Camino Francés is waymarked in one direction with yellow arrows, scallop shells, and other pilgrim signs.

On both routes, I found the waymarking quite good, though on each there were a few spots where it was relatively easy to get lost.

Churches and Cathedrals

Many of the churches along the Chemin du Puy were open for pilgrims to pray, escape from rain and heat, light a candle, and/or pray. There was never an entrance fee to the cathedrals.

On the Camino Francés, churches were often locked, and there was usually an entrance fee to see parts, or even all, of cathedrals. Instead of real candles and a donation box (as in France), there was usually a machine where, if you put a coin in a slot, a bulb lit up on a candle.

The Routes’ Ends

There’s something incredible about arriving in Santiago de Compostela—a pilgrimage destination for so many centuries. For me, anyway, arriving in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and ending a journey there couldn’t match entering the plaza in front of the Santiago Cathedral.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:52 am
, , , , ,
6 Comments

My Camino Angels


I figure we all meet at least one angel on the Camino. It’s not necessarily dramatic. The angel might be the pharmacist-pilgrim who turns up with painkillers two minutes after you’ve hurt your leg, or a local who gives you water when you desperately need it.

The Camino angels I remember best were a group of retired French siblings who rescued me one day on the Chemin du Puy.

The day started off badly. I was in a terrible mood that morning, as I got ready to leave a rural gîte d’étape (hostel for walkers). Part of it was because my walking companion of the last week and a half was about to go home to Belgium, leaving me alone. And then I was planning to stay at a tiny gîte with only seven beds that night. It was in Uzan, which I thought was basically in the middle of nowhere. And despite several phone calls, I couldn’t get through to the owners to confirm my reservation.

I was at my most neurotic that day. What, I worried, would happen if I ended up in this tiny town and the gîte was closed or full?

And then my friend seemed to take forever to get ready. I wondered if I’d even make it to the gîte before dark, and checked my flashlight just in case. It had burned out, leaving me even more paranoid, since I was now convinced I wouldn’t make it to Uzan before dark.

It was one of those mornings when you walk and walk and walk, but hardly seem to make any progress.

And then there was the rain, which started up soon after we got underway. It was the first serious rain I’d experienced so far, more than a month into my pilgrimage. And so, for the first time, I realized that my rain jacket wasn’t completely waterproof. So I was wet and frozen by the time we reached Arzacq-Arraziguet around lunchtime, only 8.5 kilometres beyond the farm where we’d spent the night. I still had about 16 kilometres to go.

With some help from my French-speaking friend, I found a headlamp in Arzacq, solving one of my problems. But, as we made our way to the gîte where she would spend the night before going home, my cold and miserable brain came up with new, increasingly irrational, scenarios. Even if I found a place to spend the night, things could get worse. What if it rained the rest of the way to Santiago? It was already the beginning of October. With my imperfect jacket, I would probably freeze to death.

There was no one around at the Arzacq gîte, so my friend and I settled down in the kitchen. I changed out of my wet clothes, and felt a little better. We went out to find a public phone and tried calling the Uzan gîte yet again. Still no response.

When we returned to the gîte kitchen to eat lunch, I suddenly realized I’d dug through my entire backpack in search of dry clothes and hadn’t seen my new headlamp.

I took everything out of my pack again. No headlamp. I looked in all the pockets, though I knew I hadn’t put it in them. It wasn’t there. I looked all around on the chair and the floor. Still no headlamp.

By this time, I was in a panic. And then finally, somehow, I thought to look at the inside of the top of my pack. The headlamp had got stuck there. I picked it up, tried out its lights—they still worked!—and put it down on top of my jacket.

A few minutes later, I grabbed the jacket, knocking the headlamp to the floor. I tried turning it on again. Nothing happened.

It wasn’t the end of the world, but in my current state, it felt like it. Although my friend was still there, she wasn’t going to continue with me, so I felt utterly alone with my problems.

That was when my angels came in: a group of four retired French siblings—three men and a woman—who had stayed at the same gîte as we had the night before. They were each taking a turn driving, while the other three walked. One of them looked the perfect French gentleman but spoke English with a British accent, and even used words like “chap.”

They noticed I was close to tears, and asked what was wrong. I told them about the headlamp. One of the brothers figured out how to open it up, and got the batteries back in properly so it worked again.

Then my friend explained about my problem getting hold of the gîte in Uzan. Immediately, the sister offered to drive me to Uzan to make sure all was well.

They must have gathered I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea (I didn’t like the thought of paying a lightning-fast visit to the place I’d then walk for hours to reach). So the same man who’d fixed my headlamp looked in the phonebook, found the number of someone with the same last name as the gîte-owners, and called them up. The person on the other end of the phone said there was no problem—the gîte was open, and even if it was full, his uncle and aunt, who owned it, would find me another place to stay.

And just like that, everything was all right again. Better than all right, even—not only, or even not primarily because I had a working light and a definite place to stay, but because of the way these four strangers had helped me.

I didn’t get their address. I never even learned their names, or got a picture of them. I hope they’re doing well. I hope they’re happy. Two years later, I still think about them sometimes, and their unhesitating kindness to a stranger.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 5:16 pm
, , , , ,
Comments Off on My Camino Angels

Leaping Small Hills in a Single Bound


Photo with PyreneesI wrote in my diary, ruefully, a few weeks into my pilgrimage across France, that I’d thought by now I should be able to leap at least small hills in a single bound. But even after weeks of walking, I still struggled up steep inclines, stopping intermittently to catch my breath.

And then one day, suddenly, I could fly.

I like to blame it on the mountains, the Pyrenees, swelling on the horizon as I walked.

I’ve approached mountains before. When I was young, every few summers my family would drive from Winnipeg, in the prairies, through the Rockies to Vancouver, where my dad’s family lived. It was always an exciting moment, when someone saw the mountains, a tiny jagged line on the horizon.

But back then, we were in the Rockies within a few hours. Approaching the Pyrenees was different. I was walking.

It took a few days, from the first time I spotted the mountains until the day I began to climb them. I liked the idea of the approach as much as the reality of it, I think. Just the thought of walking up to a mountain range and through it was magical.

Soon after I began to see the Pyrenees, I wrote in my journal: “This trip has so many moments … where it’s worth all the trouble of being human just to be walking across France in the rain, looking at the Pyrenees.”

I wound my way up hills and down into valleys in the days before I reached St. Jean Pied-de-Port, at the beginning of the pass. Dipping into valleys, I wouldn’t be able to see the snow-tipped peaks strung out along the horizon. A French friend I walked with awhile would laugh at me because I would constantly exclaim, “Les Pyrenees! The Pyrenees!” when they reappeared.

Field with Pyrenees

It might sound corny, but they filled my heart with joy. My diary is full of references to the mountains:

“… they are just so much more pointy and mountainy-looking than anything I’ve seen so far. (How’s that for a description from someone who wants to be a professional writer?)”

“It’s magical, watching them slowly grow bigger. I love it, love it, love it.”

“There were some nice foresty bits today, and cow-y bits, and some rather boring town-y and corn-y parts. Sometimes it feels so flat, but then you go up a hill or the trees clear away and there are the Pyrenees.”

I am the sort of person who can always find something to worry about, but in general I was filled with joy those days before the mountains. I was feeling good physically, too.

At the beginning of the trip, I wasn’t in terribly good shape, so negotiating the frequent hills and valleys of the Chemin du Puy (one of the French routes of the Camino de Santiago) was a constant challenge. And just when I was feeling like I could handle going about 20 kilometres a day, my feet developed blisters. They weren’t terrible—just two per heel—but they did bring a bit of pain to every step. Finally, just as the blisters were turning into sturdy callouses on my heels, I got bronchitis—coughing, fever and all.

As I approached the Pyrenees, I was still coughing, but my illness was only a cold, not really so bad at all. My body, finally, was not only working but quite possibly in better shape than it had ever been in before.

The day before I reached St. Jean Pied-de-Port, I had a ridiculous amount of energy. I had a choice between two route variants. I took the shorter, flatter one, since I’d climbed enough hills that I automatically bypassed any I could possibly avoid.

Halfway through the bypass route, I lunched with some friends, new and old (old being acquaintances of more than a few days, on the Camino). Then I set out on my own, and soon came to the juncture where the two routes rejoined. Consulting my Miam Miam Dodo—most useful of guidebooks—I discovered I was only a few kilometres from the town where I planned to spend the night.

And so I backtracked, up the high route, about a kilometre uphill, heading for a place where my guidebook showed a small chapel. I was exhilarated. I was alive. I sang as I almost bounded up the hill.

I got there to find the view spread out magnificently below me, of the towns, of the Pyranees still in the distance.

[View from the chapel]

The chapel itself was locked, but I didn’t care. I felt like doing something ridiculous. It was warm for an autumn day, but not swelteringly summer anymore. I was hot from the climb, though, so I decided to dump water from a tap outside the chapel on my head. I immediately began to cough, and decided I was insane, but I didn’t care.

I sat down on a lovely little bench to rest, but I didn’t feel like resting that day. For the first time I can remember, I only felt like moving, moving, moving.

Then I went back down the hill again, feeling alive and ridiculously energetic.

I had amazing days and more difficult days after that, but none matched the sheer exhilaration of that day in early October when I felt like I could fly.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 8:03 pm
, , , ,
1 Comment